Nikon D3300 review

The Nikon D3300 is a solid entry-level camera for shooters moving up to a D-SLR, but it's not quite worthy of being named Editors' Choice.
Photo of Nikon D3300

The Nikon D3300 ($649.95 with 18-55mm lens) is the latest iteration of Nikon’s entry-level D-SLR. The 24-megapixel camera ships with a redesigned, collapsible version of the standard kit zoom lens, and its sensor design omits a low pass filter—a feature that had been exclusive to high-end cameras until very recently. It’s a good choice for shooters who are still working on learning about photography thanks to an in-camera Guide Mode, and is quite light and compact. It doesn’t quite oust our Editors’ Choice for D-SLRs under $1,000, the Nikon D5200. We haven’t yet tested the newer D5300, but we feel that the D5200 exceeds the D3300 thanks to an articulating rear display and a more advanced autofocus system.

Design and Features
The D3300 is strikingly compact when you consider it’s a D-SLR. It measures just 3.9 by 4.9 by 3 inches (HWD) and weighs 15.2 ounces without a lens. Attaching the included AF-S DX Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II makes the depth about 5.8 inches and adds 6.9 ounces of weight. That’s with the lens collapsed for storage; it extends a bit when in use and also changes its length when zooming. The D3300 isn’t the smallest SLR in the world; that honor goes to the Canon EOS Rebel SL1—it measures 3.6 by 4.6 by 2.7 inches and weighs 14.4 ounces. If you’re buying based on size, you may also want to consider looking at the mirrorless camera market; models like the Samsung NX300 are smaller and lighter, and use the same size image sensors as most SLRs.

One advantage you’ll get with a D-SLR over a mirrorless camera is an optical viewfinder. Like most SLRs in this class, the D3300 uses a pentamirror finder to bring light to your eye. Mirrors bounce light from the camera’s lens and focus screen to bring the image to your eye, but it only shows 95 percent of what the lens sees, cutting off the outer edges. A pentamirror finder is a big step up from the tiny tunnel viewfinders that were once commonplace in pocketable point-and-shots, and if that’s what you’re used to it will be a nice upgrade. But many pricier cameras, like Nikon’s own enthusiast targeted D7100 use a solid piece of glass called a pentaprism instead of mirrors with 100 percent frame coverage. The advantage is a larger, brighter image, but they are costlier and add weight to the camera. If you’re demanding of a more serious optical viewfinder, consider the entry-level Pentax K-500 or its weather-sealed twin, the K-50; they’re the only two cameras in this class with a pentaprism finder.

If you just want to take high quality photos and couldn’t care less about f-stops and shutter speeds, you’ll want to switch the D3300 into Guide mode. There’s a setting for it on the top mode dial, and it will activate a mode that automatically changes settings to capture the type of photo you’re after. Basic options include Auto, No Flash, Distant Subjects, Close-Ups, Sleeping Faces, Moving Subjects, Landscapes, Portraits, Night Portraits, and Night Landscapes. There’s also an Advanced mode that has settings named Soften Backgrounds, Bring More Into Focus, Freeze Motion (People), Freeze Motion (Vehicles), Show Water Flowing, Capture Reds in Sunsets, Take Bright Photos, Take Dark (Low Key) Photos, and Reduce Blur.

These are all presented along with thumbnails showing the effect you’ll get. It’s a bit more intuitive than various Scene modes that you see on many physical cameras dials (although they are there too). Once you’ve taken a photo you can also use the Guide to help you make edits in-camera; you can crop photos, add starbursts, , create a black and white photo with selective colors still in view, give images a diorama type look, add a soft focus effect, or alter images to look more like a painting. Additional image retouch options are available via the camera’s menu.

If you’re a bit more knowledgeable, photographically speaking, the D3300 does offer manual control, along with the standard program, aperture priority, and shutter priority modes. Front controls are sparse; there’s just a programmable Fn buttion (it can be set to image size, ISO, white balance, and Active D-Lighting) and releases to raise the flash and detach the lens. On the top plate, to the right of the viewfinder, are the mode dial, video record button, Info button, exposure compensation button, and the power switch and shutter release.

On the rear you’ll find the AE-L/AF-L and the camera’s lone control dial, both to the right of the viewfinder. Running along the left side of the LCD is a column of controls for menu access and image playback, but there’s also the i button which gives you quick access to control a bank of shooting settings that are displayed on the rear LCD. To the right of the display there’s a button that toggles Live View, a directional pad and center OK button to navigate through settings, and buttons to adjust the drive mode and delete images.

The control layout is a good starting place for casual shooters, but there are a couple of things missing. There’s no depth of field preview button, so you won’t be able to narrow the lens to the shooting aperture before taking a photo to preview what will be in focus; that’s a useful function that could easily be assigned to the Fn button, but Nikon doesn’t offer it. There’s also only a single control dial, which is true for most SLRs in this price class; the Pentax K-50 and K-500 have dual dials, but they’re exceptions to the rule.

There rear LCD is 3 inches in size and features a 920k-dot resolution. That’s par for the course with SLRs—it’s sharp enough to verify focus when playing back photos, or when shooting via Live View. It shows the status of various shooting settings, including the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and active focus point when not in Live View mode. It also houses a bank of settings, accessed via the i button, that give you quick control over file format and image size, white balance, flash settings, ISO, autofocus mode, autofocus area, the metering pattern, the flash output power, and exposure compensation. It’s a solid alternative to diving into the menu to change settings, but you’ll still have to do just that in order to switch between manual and automatic ISO control.

There’s no Wi-Fi or GPS. You won’t find GPS on many SLRs, although the Sony Alpha 65 does have it, but Wi-Fi is becoming more and more common as a built-in feature. Nikon offers the WU-1a as an add-on adapter, but we felt that it was a bit clunky to use when we reviewed it. If you’re looking to transfer images from the D3300 to your smartphone or tablet for online sharing, consider instead the Eye-Fi Mobi memory card—it’s very easy to setup, and works automatically.

Performance and Conclusions
The D3300 is fairly snappy; it starts and shoots in about 0.6-second and fires off shots at 4.9 frames per second. Burst shooting is limited if you are capturing Raw+JPG (4 shots) or Raw (5 shots) images, but it can keep up its pace for 100 JPGs. Startup is faster than Sony’s entry-level model, the Alpha 58. It takes a full 2.8 seconds to boot and fire a shot, but its 5fps burst rate matches the D3300. It has similar limitations in Raw and Raw+JPG capture, and falls well short of the D3300 when shooting JPG, capturing only 10 images before slowing down.

Its focus speed is a bit slow; it requires 0.3-seconds to lock and fire in ample light, about 0.9-second in dim light. If you’re working in Live View mode you’ll have to wait about 1.6 seconds in ample light and 2.8 seconds in good light before focus is locked. The D3300 has an 11-point autofocus system that covers the center half of the frame, but you can move the Live View focus area all the way out to the edge of the frame. The Pentax K-50 also has an 11-point focus system, but locks and fires in 0.1-second in good light. The K-50 is a bit slower in very dim light (1.4 seconds), but its Live View focus locks on in 0.8-second in ample light and 2.3 seconds in dim light.

I used Imatest to check the quality of the included 18-55mm zoom lens. The D3300 is the first to ship with this particular zoom; it’s got the same focal length range as previous kit zooms from Nikon, but it has a collapsible design that makes it a bit more compact when not in use. At 18mm f/3.5 it exceeds the 1,800 lines per picture height we use to mark a sharp image, scoring 2,332 lines on a center-weighted sharpness test. Sharpness is good through most of the frame, but drops off at the edges; they show just 1,127 lines. Stopping down to f/5.6 fixes that; the center-weighted score jumps to 2,692 lines and edges top 2,000 lines. At f/8 performance is more even across the frame, with an average score of 2,949 lines and edges that top 2,700 lines.

At 35mm the lens has a maximum aperture of f/4.5, and is a bit softer with an average score of 1,670 lines. If you’re able to, stop down to f/5.6—the average score jumps to 2,422 lines with most of the frame (including the edges) approaching 2,200 lines. At f/8 the average score is 3,100 lines, with just a slight drop off in resolution at the edges of the frame. Zooming to the maximum 55mm focal length narrows the aperture to f/5.6. The lens performs well here, notching 2,603 lines with edges that hit 2,500 lines; stopping down to f/8 bumps the score to 2,974 lines with even sharpness across the frame.

Just because a lens isn’t sharp doesn’t make it great; the 18-55mm does have a few issues. At 18mm it shows a lot of barrel distortion, about 4.2 percent; that’s going to make straight lines appear to curve noticeably outward, like the ribs of a barrel. If you shoot in Raw format you’ll have to correct this yourself in software, but JPG shooters can enable in-camera distortion control to straighten those lines out. Distortion isn’t an issue at 35mm or 55mm. I also noticed that in situations with a strong backlight, the 18-55mm had a tendency to flare, resulting in a washed out image. In the same situation the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G Special Edition handled the scene much better, minimizing flare and capturing a much higher quality photo.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can introduce a grainy look and hurt detail when shooting at the sensitivities required to capture photos at a fast shutter speed in low light. The D3300 isn’t the best scoring camera we’ve seen on this test, it only keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 800, but the noise at ISO 1600 (1.6 percent) and ISO 3200 (1.7 percent) is just above our threshold. Close examination of the photos on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display shows that detail is excellent at ISO 1600, and there’s just a little bit of evidence of smudging at ISO 3200. Quality does start to drop off at ISO 6400, but I’d not hesitate to use that sensitivity for Web sharing, even when shooting in JPG. It’s not until you get to ISO 12800 and 25600 that detail is washed away entirely.

You can eke a little bit more detail out of shots if you shoot in Raw; if you don’t mind a lot of grain, ISO 12800 is useable there, and ISO 6400 is excellent in terms of detail. But most people who pick this camera up will shoot in JPG, so it’s refreshing to see that Nikon has opted to emphasize image detail over heavy-handed noise reduction. The lack of an optical low-pass filter doesn’t hurt either; Nikon is the first company to remove this filter, which adds a slight blur to images in order to combat color moiré, from an entry-level SLR. In my shooting color moiré, which can add an unnatural rainbow effect to certain textures, wasn’t an issue, but if you do see it in photos it’s something that you can remove using image editing software.

Video is recorded in QuickTime format at 1080p60, 1080p30, 1080p24, 720p60, or 424p30 quality. The benefit of the 60fps maximum frame rate is apparent; motion is smooth, and the rolling shutter effect, which can cause a jelly-like video effect when recording fast action, is only evident in very fast pans. The D3300 does focus continuously when set to AF-F mode, but there were times when it didn’t recognize the scene had changed and that focus needed to be reacquired; holding the shutter button down halfway will force the camera to confirm focus in those instances. The sound of the kit lens adjusting focus was audible on the soundtrack, but there is a mic input port if you’re more serious about the sound quality of your videos.

There’s also a connector for a wired remote control, a mini HDMI output, and a proprietary USB port on the left side, all covered by rubber flaps. The memory card compartment is on the right and supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory formats. In-camera battery charging is not supported, so Nikon includes a standard wall charger. It has a plug that folds in when not in use, so you won’t have to worry about carrying an extra cord around.

The Nikon D3300 is a solid entry-level SLR. It’s geared towards photographic neophytes, and its Guide setting is a good way for folks who don’t have the desire to learn the ins and outs of camera jargon to capture life’s moments in high quality. Its image quality is very good, even in low light, and even though the bundled zoom has some issues with distortion and doesn’t capture as much light as others, it’s a good starter lens. Knowledgeable photographers who are in the market for an entry-level SLR may want to look at the Pentax K-50 and K-500, as they have some features that more experienced shutterbugs will appreciate, and if absolute smallness is a concern the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 or a mirrorless camera like the Samsung NX300 shouldn’t be discounted. But if you’re searching for a camera to record family memories, and feel that your smartphone or a compact camera fall short in image quality, the Nikon D3300 is a good place to start.

Specifications
Dimensions 3.9 x 4.9 x 3 inches
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 24 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.2 seconds
LCD dots 921,000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 2332
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type D-SLR
GPS No
Optical Zoom 3 x
Boot time 0.6 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 27 mm
Weight 15.2 oz
Lens Mount Nikon F
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization In-Lens
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 83 mm
Shutter Lag 0.3 seconds
Sensor Size APS-C (23.2 x 15.4mm) mm
Viewfinder Type Optical

Verdict
The Nikon D3300 is a solid entry-level camera for shooters moving up to a D-SLR, but it's not quite worthy of being named Editors' Choice.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc